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Commentary & Opinion

Ralph Gardner Jr: A Winter Memory

Jan and Ed Tishman in Warren, Vt. 1971
Jan and Ed Tishman in Warren, Vt. 1971

With snow in the forecast, at least somewhere, and ski resorts already making snow (they’re making snow already, right?) I think back fondly to the family responsible for making me the proud intermediate skier I am today.

Their name was Tishman and they had a house in Warren, Vermont, located minutes from Sugarbush Mountain.

But the Tishmans, Jan Tishman in particular -- I was sad to learn she died earlier this year -- gave me a lot more than the courage to get down a mountain on two sticks. She also gave me a sense of myself.

But before I get to that I’d just like to say that I don’t think I’ve ever been colder than I was at fifteen as the Sugarbush chair lift crept up the mountain with the wind chill at around twenty below. I went to school with Douglas, the Tishmans son, for thirteen years, from kindergarten through high school.

They were members of the real estate and construction family and they lived in an apartment on Park Avenue that was profiled in the New York Times Magazine.

The elevator opened onto a Japanese inspired-vestibule with rice paper walls and a path of brushed pebbles. But the rooms that remain most vivid in my memory are the futuristic kitchen with its built in appliances and Jan’s bathroom.

It was designed like a Roman bath, with descending steps.

My brother Jamie, who was friends with Doug’s younger brother Andrew, recalls the time they stumbled upon Mrs. Tishman immersed in a bubble bath and reading Catch-22.

To my brother, that remains an iconic image from the Sixties.

But it wasn’t until the Tishmans invited me to Vermont that I developed my own relationship with Jan.

She could frankly be something of a taskmaster; Doug and his friends weren’t allowed to hit the slopes until they’d completed their chores.

All his friends, that is, except me.

What I quickly discovered is that if I hung out in the kitchen cracking jokes – think of Eddie Haskell of Leave It To Beaver fame -- while Jan and her crew prepared for that evening’s dinner party I could avoid lugging firewood or even making my bed.

Back then Sugarbush was a watering hole for the jet set. And the Tishmans’ parties were well stocked with A-listers -- from Johnny Carson bandleader Skitch Henderson to fashion designer Oleg Cassini.

There’s a memorable passage in Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” where his awestruck protagonist describes the home of wealthy, beautiful, Radcliffe-educated Brenda Patimkin. “Fruit grew in their refrigerator,” Roth wrote, “and sporting goods dropped from their trees!”

Abundance at the Tishman home was similarly epic. I spent one Christmas vacation with them where the house was stacked high with festive holiday tins of cookies from William Greenberg Desserts, the Upper East Side’s least affordable baker.

And when I graduated from high school the Tishmans gave me a small blue box from Tiffany that contained a ceremonial gold key to their house.

But perhaps the most precious gift Jan gave me was her encouragement. I don’t think I’d heard of S.J. Perelman, the humorist and screenwriter who teamed up with the Marx Brothers, when Jan presented me with a volume of his work.

Perhaps she saw some potential there.

We last spoke several years ago when I tracked her down and called her out of the blue. She and her husband Ed had moved to Connecticut. She’s also survived by Andrew and her daughter Leslie.

Jan sadly informed me that Doug had died in a car accident a few years earlier. But she did so in a stoic way that masked her pain and made me recall the time that Doug and I were traveling through France fresh out of high school with a third friend.

Unable to find a room in the small town where our train deposited us, we’d unrolled our sleeping bags in a boxcar. Doug apparently didn’t find the accommodations up to expectations and soon left. I called Jan with some trepidation to report her son missing. But she took the news in stride. “If we don’t hear from him in the next 24 hours,” she stated calmly, “we’ll just have to call out the French National Guard.”

Fortunately Doug contacted her before the deadline. But her style was to pull out all the stops.

It also lent a gawky teenager the belief that if she respected you, you might one day make something of yourself, and even learn to ski along the way.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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